Looking Back: Friday Night at the Mainstage

 The theme this evening is “Looking Out, Looking In”, and THIN AIR festival-goers are keen to find out what this means. Seats are all full except for the centre row at the front. Six writers will read tonight, presenting their works as “an awareness of the frames” through which we view our lives. The texts will explore movements in perspective: changes in location, attitude, and culture.

Clark Blaise is the first reader. His newest publication is The Meagre Tarmac, a collection of short stories about Indian immigrants. “A Connie Dacuna Book,” the first story in the anthology, centers around a Portuguese family after the Indian army retakes areas formerly Portuguese colonies. The main character is a book editor for a very flashy author, described as wearing “haute-dyke battle gear…she looked and sounded like a piece of hard candy wrapped in cellophane.” It only gets stranger – and funnier – from there, and is at the same time completely believable.
Next to read is Waubgeshig Rice, a member of the Bear Clan from Ontario. His short story collection, Midnight Sweatlodge, parallels his own long journey to understand being an Anishinaabe. Through the book, and Rice’s emotional reading, we glimpse the young Aboriginal experience – “why our spirits are broken”, Rice says. The one overarching message in these stories is a hopeful one, though: it talks about the connection of the Anishinaabe to the land. “The seeds were in the ground, it just needed to rain.”
Guy Vanderhaeghe comes third, reading a self-described “bawdy” excerpt from A Good Man, his latest novel. Three characters form the principal group in this novel, the hard-hitting Mr. Chase, his layabout companion Joe McMullen, and the naïve young Northwest Policeman Peregrin Hathaway. Our excerpt has McMullen telling tall tales to Chase. Hasn’t McMullen already related the story of Lurleen and Fancy Charles? “No, but you will. I see it comin’ at me like a runaway carriage,” says Chase. Well, McMullen is ready. “I hope I die if this ain’t the unvarnished truth,” he proclaims, and then launches into a story about Fancy Charles’ imaginary woman.
The second half of the evening begins with Rosemary Nixon. Her matter-of-fact voice contrasts with the heartbreak in the words of her characters Brodie and Maggie, new parents to a possibly terminally ill child. The scene in which Maggie begs to bathe her newborn daughter – “Kalila finds herself in water. Her expression is surprise” – is so subtly described that it remains in the mind, especially when we learn that Kalila means “beloved.”
David Homel changes the tone with his reading from Midway. Two dinosaurs, a T-rex and a Stegosaurus, are used by the father of their owner in a bit of role-playing. “I was hoping for more sympathy from you,” says the Stegosaurus to his friend. Both dinosaurs, the audience learns, have been drinking, but not social drinking because the rest of their society is extinct. When Ben, the only human in the room, breaks down crying, the dinos come to his rescue. “We’re toys, right? We speak for people,” they insist, telling Ben that he should use them in play with Laura, his wife, with whom he has hit a rough patch. Ben is unsure about role-playing, but the dinos are convinced. “Role playing?” scoff the dinosaurs. “That’s just plain playing.”
Miriam Toews is the last to read. Her young character Irma Voth, from the book of the same name, has been left by her Mexican husband after her family shuns her for marrying him. “We’re sorted like buttons and we’re expected to stay where we’re put,” says Voth in explanation of this extreme reaction. This man, Jorge, with whom she’d dreamed of running a lighthouse even though she hadn’t ever seen the ocean, has left her high and dry. “There’s no lighthouse on my horizon,” Voth says softly at the end of the reading – but it’s Miriam Toews, so we know the story doesn’t end there.
Prizes are drawn, and the packed house clears out to Aqua Books, where Steve Kirby and guitar prodigy Chris Ulrich lay down some smooth jazz as a backdrop to the sound and fury of Steven Ross Smith’s performance poetry. At the finale, Kirby and Ulrich are playing with all their might as Smith tosses signed copies of previous poetry collections into the crowd. It’s a rowdy, fantastic evening – and I can only imagine that the Manitoba Reads/Birthday Bash on Saturday will be even more exciting.